OCTOBER 15, 2019
Finding Link Between Infection and Alzheimer’s Disease Could Be Worth $1 Million
By Tom Rosenthal
WASHINGTON—If you can present persuasive evidence that a particular microbe causes Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a $1 million prize waiting for you.
“This is an award for achievement; it is not a grant,” said Leslie N. Norins, MD, PhD, FIDSA, the founder and CEO of Alzheimer’s Germ Quest, Inc. (ALZgerm.org). The nonprofit group is funding the award to encourage more intensive research on the possibility that microorganisms are the root cause of the incurable disease afflicting 47 million people worldwide, including 5.6 million Americans aged 65 years and older.
First announced in January 2018, the deadline for submissions for the $1 Million Alzheimer’s Germ Challenge Award is Dec. 31, 2020. Click here for details.
With the $1 Million Alzheimer’s Germ Challenge Award, a trifecta of new research funding might finally enable investigators to define the role of microorganisms in the causation of Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Norins.
New federal research grants being offered by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging (NIH/NIA) dubbed “high priority” and possibly totaling millions of dollars will accelerate and deepen investigation of microbes as triggers or promoters of Alzheimer’s disease, he explained.
“This high-priority topic aims to determine whether microbial pathogens represent a causal component of Alzheimer’s disease, establish mechanisms by which microbial pathogens impact neurodegenerative processes in Alzheimer’s disease, and inform aspects of future translational studies in Alzheimer’s disease, including discovery of candidate therapeutics aimed at regulating pathogen-associated networks and molecules in Alzheimer’s disease,” the NIA grant announcement stated.
Dr. Norins stressed it will be vital that the NIH’s grant reviewers for these submissions be infectious disease specialists, to be able to fairly assess and accurately score the new Alzheimer’s grant applications.
An additional five grants of $100,000 each are being offered by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) Foundation. The submission deadline is Nov. 30, 2019. Scientists in the United States and abroad are eligible to apply, as are both IDSA and non-IDSA members. For more information about the IDSA grants, click here.
The grants are designed to “obtain evidence that an infectious agent or microbial community is correlated to Alzheimer’s disease” and to “promote novel research in the field of microbial triggers for Alzheimer’s disease,” the grant announcement said.
There is growing evidence that an “Alzheimer’s germ” exists, whether it is a bacterium, virus, fungus, parasite or prion, said Thomas Fekete, MD, FIDSA, the outgoing chair of the IDSA Foundation. “A number of tantalizing findings suggest an infectious agent may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and we are committed to determining if the link is real,” he said.
“We first awarded grants supporting this kind of research last year, but with funding and support from Alzheimer’s Germ Quest and The Benter Foundation, this year we’re able to offer five individual $100,000 grants, which is five times the financial commitment provided last year,” Dr. Fekete said.
William Benter, the president of The Benter Foundation, said, “After years of investigating amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, scientists are broadening the focus to include the potentially promising link between infection and Alzheimer’s disease, and we hope these grants accelerate knowledge about these possible connections. One day, we may be able to trace the cure of Alzheimer’s back to these innovators and their important work.”
Dr. Norins sat down with Infectious Disease Special Edition at IDWeek to discuss the possibilities of an infectious etiology in Alzheimer’s disease. “There is now tremendous buzz about the possibility infectious organisms trigger Alzheimer’s. Talking with so many inquiring attendees has brought me near to total laryngitis,” he said.
Despite years of investigation and billions of research dollars spent, a remedy helpful to patients has remained stubbornly out of reach, as has the cause. Two proteins found in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, amyloid and tau, have received most of the research attention and the grant monies. But to date, these studies have not produced a cause or a cure.
The possibility of an infectious cause in Alzheimer’s disease was first floated nearly 70 years ago, but it was routinely dismissed by researchers favoring the predominant hypothesis that amyloid and tau were the culprits. However, increasing evidence of microorganisms in the brain, plus failure of anti-amyloid drug candidates in clinical trials, has brought the spotlight back to the possible role of infectious agents.
Notable among the newer clues, according to the NIA, is that herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) was present in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, making the concept of microbial etiology plausible. The further discovery of HSV-1 DNA within amyloid adds weight, according to NIA.
In addition to viruses, the agency recognized that various bacteria, including spirochetes, Chlamydia pneumoniae and Helicobacter pylori, or some organism associated with periodontal disease could be culprits.
“If we can identify that germ, it will open up pathways to effective diagnosis, treatments and prevention,” Dr. Norins said.
After analyzing the medical literature on Alzheimer’s several years ago, Dr. Norins launched Alzheimer’s Germ Quest Inc. to prioritize research into the potential Alzheimer’s disease–infection connection. He believes the theorized organism has gone undiscovered because few researchers have been looking at the infection angle; older methods of organism detection have been used; and there is too little collaboration between researchers on Alzheimer’s and those studying infectious diseases.
Dr. Norins is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Duke Medical School. He obtained his PhD as the postdoctoral fellow of Sir Macfarlane Burnet, a Nobel laureate. He spent his first 10 career years at the CDC, where he became director of the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory. He then devoted the next 40 years to medical publishing, providing subscription newsletters with focused information to narrow niches of professionals in hospitals and clinics.
Most recently, he became interested in determining whether microbes might be the overlooked cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’ve closely reviewed the scientific literature and personally believe it’s clear that one germ, possibly not yet discovered, is the root cause of most Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Norins said. “But we’ll see what researchers find out.”